German media scores own goal in the Culture Wars

A just published report from the Hamburg Media School, commissioned by the Otter Brenner Stiftung, accuses the German media of succumbing to steamroller journalism in support of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy in 2015 and early 2016. The researchers looked at 35 000 articles published over a 20-week period. They found that the media ceased being professional regarding the refuge crisis, when they adopted an overwhelmingly emotionally-involved tone in favour of the government’s actions.

The Hamburg Media School said that the fear of being seen as morally wrong, helped create a ‘Schweigenpirale‘ (spiral of silence) and a media echo chamber it calls a ‘Filterblase‘ (filter-bubble), which ignored or demonised critical voices. Two-thirds of the people interviewed or cited in the media were in some way connected with the government. This profound lack of objectivity on the part of German media had the unwitting effect of inflaming public passions, deepening social divisions, and reducing trust and confidence in the media itself.

The researchers also discovered that left-wing and green media outlets, normally fierce opponents of Angela Merkel, were the most enthusiastic advocates of the government’s stance on immigration. It was not until the mass sexual assaults by groups of immigrants on German women on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne that alternative voices were given some prominence. Though that took several days into the New Year to kick in, during which time the reasons for media’s slow response became the focus of national public concern.

Explaining how most journalists willingly suspended their critical faculties, Sabine Beppler-Spahl, head of the board of the liberal think-tank ‘Freiblickinstitut e.V’, writes:

The refugee question ceased to be treated as a political issue, requiring a rational debate and search for solutions. Instead, it became a question of good and bad. And the media had a big role to play in this. The bad reporting was about more than journalists living in an echo chamber. They knew very well that many people were unhappy with what was going on. The point is that they were engaged in a process of moral differentiation. They were self-consciously siding with the perceived good, and so saw no problem in refusing others a voice. That’s a terrible strategy for anyone who cares about politics, refugees and journalistic standards.

In September 2016, Angela Merkel admitted that she had provoked public anger by repeating constantly ‘Wir schaffen das’ (We will manage), instead of actually explaining how Germany would do so. In January 2017, Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told the Welt am Sonntag :

We have tried to improve what got away from us in 2015. We politicians are human; we also make mistakes. But one can at least learn from them.

If the German media are ever going to restore their reputation, increase their circulation, and play a positive role in helping to resolve the Culture Wars, they, too, should own up to having served the public badly during the refugee crisis of 2015 and early 2016.

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